Egypt's Call to Kill Pigs Amid Flu Scare Ridiculed

May 1, 2009 - 4:40 AM
<br />
Cairo (AP) - Egypt's government was hoping to look strong and proactive in the swine flu scare with its decision to slaughter all the country's pigs, after taking heavy criticism at home for poor planning and corruption in past crises.
 
But instead, some Egyptians called the move a knee-jerk overreaction that even the World Health Organization said was unnecessary.
 
Egypt, which has no swine flu cases, is the only country in the world to order a mass pig slaughter in response to the disease. The move mirrored Egypt's battle with bird flu, in which the government killed 25 million birds within weeks in 2006.
 
But international health officials said the swine flu virus that has caused worldwide fear is not transmitted by pigs, and that pig slaughters do nothing to stop its spread. The WHO on Thursday stopped using the term "swine flu" to avoid confusion.
 
In Egypt, even the editor of a pro-government newspaper criticized the order to slaughter the estimated 300,000 pigs, which was pushed by parliament and issued by the government.
 
"Killing (pigs) is not a solution, otherwise, we should kill the people, because the virus spreads through them," wrote Abdullah Kamal of the daily Rose El-Youssef. "The terrified members of parliament should have concentrated on asking the government first about the preventive measures and ways of confronting the problem."
 
The Egyptian government has come under criticism in past years for being caught flat-footed by crises.
 
A rockslide that crushed a Cairo neighborhood and killed at least 100, and a series of fires -- including one that burned down the upper house of parliament -- highlighted how ill-prepared emergency services are. A 2005 ferry sinking that killed 1,000 raised an uproar over poor safety conditions.
 
Many accused the government of not taking precautions when bird flu first appeared in Asia in 2003. When the first case appeared in Egypt in 2006, the government carried out mass bird culls, but the disease has killed more than two dozen people since.
 
With the new flu scare, the government "took a precautionary step because they were afraid there would be a case here, and then they would face questions about why they didn't take this step," said Nader Noureddin, an agricultural resources expert at Cario University's Agricultural College.
 
The government likely felt confident slaughtering pigs would not spark any public backlash in predominantly Muslim Egypt, where the majority of the population does not eat pork. Pig raising and consumption is limited to the country's Christian minority, estimated at 10 percent of the population.
 
Still, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood was critical of the slaughter on the grounds it was not thought out.
 
"The problem is that the government here deals with things in emotional ways," said Essam el-Erian, a top Brotherhood leader. "It acts with the memory of what happened during the bird flu crisis."
 
Coptic Christian leaders -- including the pope -- condoned the slaughter, and two Coptic lawmakers were among the most vocal supporters.
 
But pig farmers -- overwhelmingly Christian -- were angered. Government efforts to start the slaughter Wednesday were met with farmers who hurled stones at Health Ministry trucks.
 
"This is the livelihood of a segment of the people," said Youssef Sidhom, an editor of the Al-Watani newspaper and prominent Coptic figure. "You can't just do something on the national level and ignore a segment of the population."
 
------
 
Associated Press Writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report.